Troupe marks new beginning by depicting world’s end

Endgame

By Richard Ades

There’s something ironic about seeing Endgame while celebrating the opening of a new theater. Samuel Beckett’s dark comedy, after all, is not about beginnings. It’s about the end of the world.

Hamm and Clov (Michael Garrett Herring and Alex Foor) spend their days in a decrepit dwelling perched between the land and the sea. Outside their tiny windows, the planet seems to be dead or dying from some unnamed catastrophe.

Hamm cannot see or walk. Clov, conversely, cannot sit. The two have a quarrelsome relationship thanks to Hamm’s constant demands that he be humored or served. These spring not only from his helplessness but from the pleasure he seems to take in making Clov’s life even more miserable than it would otherwise be.

The only other characters are Nagg and Nell (Roger Masten and Rebecca Zelanin), Hamm’s aged parents, who live in side-by-side trash cans. Though the two regard each other with tired affection, Hamm makes no secret of his hatred of them for bringing him into the world.

Despite the depressing situation and the central character’s rampant misanthropy, Endgame can be an enjoyable experience if a production makes the most of its rich, philosophical language and dour, sometimes self-referential humor. Red Herring’s production, directed by Verne Hendrick and Keely Heyl, generally hits the proper notes.

Foor’s Clov is slow, deliberate and resentful of Hamm’s bossiness. His growing despair and anger are subtly revealed in Foor’s shuffling gait and passive-aggressive tone of voice.

Masten’s Nagg is solicitous toward his wife but barely tolerates his son, boredom emanating from his face as he listens to Hamm’s long-winded storytelling in exchange for a promised treat. Masten’s brittle characterization makes the character both funny and pitiable. (Co-director Hendrick will play Nagg at the May 24 performance.)

In the smaller role of Nell, Zelanin is convincingly distracted and feeble, though she occasionally starts to fall into a Katharine Hepburn impersonation. (Linda Browning will take over the role May 19-29.)

Herring, one of the troupe’s executive producers, carries the bulk of the load as Hamm. He mostly carries it with distinction, though on opening night some of his later speeches could have been delivered more expressively.

Designed by Herring, the set is a combination of roughhewn boards and ancient tools and utensils. Topher Dick’s lighting and Dayton Willison’s grimy, threadbare costumes add to the post-apocalyptic atmosphere.

Red Herring's new home, the Franklinton Playhouse, 566 W. Rich St. Free parking is available at a lot across the street. (photo by Richard Ades)
Red Herring’s new home, the Franklinton Playhouse, 566 W. Rich St. Free parking is available at a lot across the street. (photo by Richard Ades)

The opening-night performance was not perfect, with a line dropped here and there or delivered indifferently, but it communicated the sad and mysterious essence of Beckett’s play well enough to be rewarding. But even if it hadn’t, the chance to get a first look at Red Herring’s new Franklinton home would have made the trip worthwhile.

Though the warehouse-like building is not yet finished, it’s roomy and comfortable enough to reveal its potential. Red Herring plans to share it with other groups in between its own shows, which should make the venue a valuable addition to a part of the city that’s increasingly becoming a hub of creativity.

Red Herring Productions will present Endgame through May 29 at the Franklinton Playhouse, 566 W. Rich St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, plus 2 p.m. May 15 and 29. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes. Tickets are $20 in advance, pay what you want at the door. 614-723-9116 or redherring.info.

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Maybe the goat ate his moral compass

(Martin) Tim Browning and Stevie (Sonda Staley) find themselves in a romantic triangle with a barnyard animal in The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia? (photo by Matt Slaybaugh)
(Martin) Tim Browning and Stevie (Sonda Staley) find themselves in a romantic triangle with a barnyard animal in The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia? (photo by Matt Slaybaugh)

By Richard Ades

What’s a guy to do?

Martin Gray loves his wife and has been faithful to her throughout their marriage. Then, during a visit to the countryside, he meets and instantly falls for a beautiful, sweet-natured female—a female who just happens to be a goat.

D’oh! Or rather: Doe!

In The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia?, esteemed playwright Edward Albee charges headfirst into the prickly topic of bestiality, and he doesn’t exactly handle it with kid gloves. Instead, he uses Martin’s predicament to question traditional concepts of love and morality.

Yes, Albee holds Martin up to some degree of satirical ridicule, but not because a barnyard creature has turned the architect into a bleating-heart liberal on the topic of interspecies romance. No, it’s Martin’s personality that makes him the butt of Albee’s jokes.

Martin (Tim Browning)—like wife Stevie (Sonda Staley) and, to a lesser extent, son Billy (Jesse Massaro)—is depicted as a superficial intellectual. He’s so enraptured by his own cleverness that he periodically interrupts even the fiercest argument to compliment a particularly apt comment or to question a grammatical choice.

Another early source of humor is Martin’s self-admitted forgetfulness. Apparently distracted by his secret affair with a four-legged lover, he simply can’t hold onto the threads of conversations with either his wife or his best friend, Ross (Todd Covert).

Is The Goat a comedy? That seems to be Albee’s goal at first, but later it hops the fence into the realm of tragedy as Martin’s new love places him on the horns of a marital dilemma.

At any rate, it’s not a gut-busting comedy, seldom generating more than the occasional chuckle in Red Herring’s current production. The main problem is that Albee tries to milk Martin’s forgetfulness for so many laughs that few materialize.

Then again, neither is it a great tragedy, unless you relate to Martin’s quandary—and unless you find the ending far more shocking than I did. Though I’m far from prescient, I saw it trotting my way from a mile off.

Working under Michael Herring’s direction, the actors generally play their characters naturalistically, though sometimes with a tinge of satirical exaggeration. Personally, I found Staley and Massaro the most convincing, but that’s partly because their characters are the most relatable for those of us who haven’t gone looking for love in the nearest stall. Stevie and Billy greet the news of Martin’s bucolic canoodling with understandable fury and disbelief.

As for Browning, he plays Martin as a man so obsessed by his bearded lover that he’s basically sleepwalking through life. That’s an appropriate interpretation, but I still don’t get the character. It might help if Albee had allowed Martin to go into more detail about the moment he first fell in love with a creature whose greatest joy comes from licking the glue off tin cans.

But he doesn’t, because Albee is more interested in fomenting an audience reaction than he is in an actual interspecies relationship. Before the play is over, he’s brought up such equally scandalous topics as incest and sexual attraction toward an infant.

Most provocatively of all, he has Martin attack his son’s homosexuality, as if that were somehow analogous to his own love for Sylvia. No, huh-uh. There’s no analogy between the two, despite what fear-mongering opponents of gay marriage might tell you. Consenting adults can do whatever they want, but farm animals can never be said to have free will.

Herring’s set design of the Grays’ home is modern and avant-garde, which seems fitting. On opening night, however, individual pieces had problems: a pedestal nearly falling over, a chair partially coming apart, two vases falling off shelves seemingly of their own volition. Though these appeared to be accidents, I couldn’t help wondering whether Herring meant for at least some of them to happen as symbols of the Gray family’s precarious equilibrium.

Another production oddity: Though the play was designed to be performed in one act, Red Herring adds an intermission about 35 minutes in. It serves no obvious function, as it follows a dramatic development that will come as no surprise to 99 percent of the audience.

Will the Gray family survive Martin’s barnyard dalliance? It seems that Albee wants us to care whether they do, but truthfully, I didn’t. Though parts of it are entertaining, the play as a whole is hard to take seriously.

Yes, it won a Tony (in 2002, for best play), but it’s disappointingly shallow, especially coming from the man who gave us theater’s greatest marital spat of all time: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Other than their author and the titular question marks, the two works could not be more different.

Red Herring Theatre will present The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia? through Oct. 10 in Studio One, Riffe Center, 77 S. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20 in advance, pay what you want at the door. 614-723-9116 or redherring.info.

A look back at ‘2013: The Musical’

Japheal Bondurant as competitor William Barfee in CATCO's production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Red Generation Photography)
Japheal Bondurant as competitor William Barfee in CATCO’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Red Generation Photography)

By Richard Ades

2013 may be remembered as The Year of the Musical in Central Ohio. Or, more likely, as The First Year of the Musical.

In the more than two decades I’ve been reviewing local theater, musicals have always represented a small percentage of the shows I saw each year. But that’s likely to change.

A prime reason is that CATCO dropped its long aversion to the genre when Steven Anderson took over as producing director in 2010. Another reason is the ascendance of Short North Stage, a 2-year-old troupe that specializes in Sondheim’s art form.

Add to that the musicals staged by Otterbein University Theatre and the growing number staged by Shadowbox Live, including its recent collaborations with Opera Columbus. Then figure in the musicals bravely tackled by troupes that normally stick to standard fare.

The end result is a year that was teeming with musicals. And not just musicals: great musicals.

There were so many worthwhile musicals, in fact, that I’ve been forced to abandon the format I always followed at The Other Paper, which divided the nominees into categories such as Best Drama or Best Comedy. Limiting myself to one Best Musical would have forced me to ignore many of the year’s best shows. Instead, I’ve settled for naming the year’s Top 10 shows.

A couple of caveats: First, no one has time to see everything, so I’m sure I missed some award-worthy gems. And second, this is a subjective list based not only on what was done well but on what I found particularly interesting and memorable.

With that said, congratulations to the winners, and thanks to everyone who made this an exceptional year for theater in Central Ohio.

Top 10 Shows of 2013:

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, CATCO. Though the Top 10 list is mostly arranged haphazardly, this was my favorite show of the year. Director Steven Anderson found both the heart and the laughs in this familiar musical, with help from a consistently wonderful cast led by Japheal Bondurant, Elisabeth Zimmerman and Ralph E. Scott.

Sunday in the Park With George, Short North Stage. The Garden Theater-based troupe sometimes imports its directors from New York, and it paid off handsomely here. Sarna Lapine (niece of James Lapine, who wrote the book and directed the Broadway premiere) gave us a Sondheim revival that was both pitch-perfect and picture-perfect. As a bonus, sound designer Leon Rothenberg found a way to tame the theater’s echo-y acoustics, which bodes well for future productions.

Passing Strange, Short North Stage. Green Day fans undoubtedly enjoyed the punk-rock anger of American Idiot, which came through town in March. But those of a thoughtful bent were more likely to enjoy this satirical take on youthful angst, which was beautifully realized by director Mark Clayton Southers and his committed cast.

Duck Variations, A Portable Theatre. The best news was that the fledgling troupe is the new home of Geoffrey Nelson, former artistic director of CATCO. The second-best news was that its premiere show paired Nelson with fellow CATCO alum Jonathan Putnam. These two sly and seasoned pros made the David Mamet comedy one of the year’s funniest shows.

Assassins, Red Herring Productions. Michael Herring’s solo springtime performance of Krapp’s Last Tape launched the rebirth of his long-dormant troupe. But nothing could have prepared us for Red Herring’s next show, a polished production of Sondheim’s most controversial musical. John Dranschak directed an A-list cast led by Ian Short and Nick Lingnofski.

Mercy Killers, On the Verge Productions. 2013’s crop of touring musicals supplied a fair amount of flashy entertainment, but none of them were as impressive or thought-provoking as this one-man touring show. Writer/actor Michael Milligan told a tragic tale that movingly dramatized the shortcomings of the U.S. health-care system.

The Whipping Man, Gallery Players/New Players Theater. If you thought there was no way to come up with a new take on the Civil War, this show proved you wrong. Matthew Lopez’s postwar drama reunited two former slaves with the wounded son of their Jewish master. The fascinating, if imperfect, tale was exquisitely directed by Tim Browning.

The Air Loom, MadLab. Local actor Jim Azelvandre has tried his hand at writing in the past, but this surreal tale is his best work to date. Azelvandre also supplied the canny direction, which ensured that the ingenious storyline and eccentric characters remained entertaining throughout.

Henry IV, Part One, New Players Theater. Besides staging The Taming of the Shrew on its outdoor stage, New Players was brave enough to tackle one of Shakespeare’s seldom-seen historical dramas. Bard-literate director Robert Behrens made 15th-century Britain come to life with the help of a lively cast led by David Tull as the hard-partying Prince Hal and John Tener as the irrepressible Falstaff.

Burlesque Behind the Curtain, Shadowbox Live. Shadowbox’s production of Spamalot was a blast, too, but Behind the Curtain deserves credit for improving on last year’s Burlesque de Voyage. Writer Jimmy Mak, director Stev Guyer and the talented players created a show that was sometimes very sexy and other times very, very funny.

Shadowbox has a new theme; Red Herring has a new life

Nikki Fagin belts out a song in Taboo (photo courtesy of Shadowbox Live)
Nikki Fagin belts out a song in Taboo (photo courtesy of Shadowbox Live)

By Richard Ades

Appropriately titled Taboo, Shadowbox Live’s latest theme show is designed to raise people’s hackles. So it’s not surprising that one of its skits raised mine.

In Waiting for Paradise, Stacie Boord plays a Presbyterian who runs into a Catholic (Tom Cardinal) in heaven’s “waiting room” and insinuates that she’s more deserving of salvation because she’s a “true” Christian. Having been raised as a Presbyterian, I can tell you that’s very unlikely to happen. Presbyterians subscribe to the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, which means they can take little credit for anything that happens to them. So how can they feel qualified to lord it over anyone?

But what really irks me is that Boord’s character is mislabeled to begin with. The Catholic insults her by charging that the only things Presbyterians need for baptism are a swimming pool and a pocket Bible. Wrong! You show me a Presbyterian who was baptized in a pool, and I’ll show you a Baptist.

Obviously, Shadowbox is confusing Presbyterians with another brand of Protestants who are all too often known for their “my way or the hell way” attitude.

This denominational error notwithstanding, Waiting for Paradise does make a valid point about religious intolerance. It just makes it a little too bluntly to be really funny. But that’s OK, because there are other skits here that are really funny.

One of the wittiest is Good Driver Discount, in which an attempt to diversify a commercial for car insurance keeps running into cultural stereotypes. Show a black guy eating at the wheel? Fine, but can we find him something to eat besides a bucket of fried chicken? And let’s not, by any means, suggest that Asian women are prone to accidents.

Also hilarious is Face to Facebook, though I hesitate to say why for fear of offending my Facebook friends. Suffice it to say that its targets include anti-Obama ranters, PC-minded carpers and parents who think every image of their newborn is deserving of Web-wide attention.

Several other skits are at least worthy of an appreciate chuckle. An example is Coming Out & Going Home, about a college student (Jimmy Mak) who has a potentially shocking announcement to make to his backwoods parents (Robbie Nance and Boord). The bit builds to a clever twist before petering off in a formulaic way.

The scattered video segments are similarly edgy, including Too Taboo, in which JT Walker III unwittingly reveals his encyclopedic knowledge of kinky sexual practices.

As for the songs, they’re both complementary and fun. Highlights include Don’t Stand So Close to Me (sung by Stephanie Shull), Face Down in the Dirt (sung by Boord) and Let’s Go Get Stoned (delivered by a soulful and bluesy Walker).

Starting it all off in an amusingly outrageous manner—if you’re lucky enough to attend one of the performances where he appears—is a standup routine by comedian Justin Golak. His act reaches its envelope-pushing zenith with a joke about Hitler, Beethoven and the Right to Life movement.

Many Shadowbox shows seem to be variations on each other. Taboo takes off in a whole new direction and makes the most of the virgin territory.

Taboo continues through June 8 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $30, $20 for students and seniors. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

Watch out for that banana peel!

If you paid attention to the Columbus theater scene in the 1990s, you were familiar with Red Herring. Michael Herring’s troupe was responsible for some of the decade’s more offbeat offerings.

The company closed down soon after the turn of the millennium, and Herring left town in 2003. But now the actor/director appears ready to bring Red Herring back with the help of former collaborator John Dranschak.

The first glimpse of its rebirth is Krapp’s Last Tape, a semi-autobiographical one-man play by Samuel Beckett. Dranschak directs and Herring stars, appearing onstage for the first time since the early aughts.

His performance won’t surprise the average Red Herring alum. Playing a 69-year-old writer who revisits his youth with the help of boxes full of reel-to-reel audiotapes, Herring is physically precise and dramatically understated.

Long moments are spent shuffling back and forth between the tape recorder and the closet where Krapp stores his tapes—and his alcohol. An early gag involving a banana peel unfolds so slowly that you anticipate the payoff minutes before it actually happens.

Herring’s performance is impressive in its self-control, but some will find it too deliberate and repressed to be dramatically stimulating. Longtime theater fans will find it exciting in another way, though. Given what Herring and his troupe once meant to Columbus, seeing him onstage in 2013 is like watching a piece of history come back to life.

With any luck, that piece of history will morph into a harbinger of theater yet to come.

Red Herring Productions will present Krapp’s Last Tape at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday (April 4-6) at MadLab Theatre, 227 N. Third St. Running time: 50 minutes. Tickets: $20 in advance, pay what you want at the door. 614-723-1996 or redherring.info.